Pollution kills nine million people and costs trillions of dollars per year, and “threatens the continuing survival of human societies,” according to a comprehensive global analysis published last Friday in the medical journal The Lancet.
“We fear that with nine million deaths a year, we are pushing the envelope on the amount of pollution the Earth can carry,” said Prof. Philip Landrigan, co-chair of the Commission on Pollution and Health and dean of global health at New York’s Icahn School of Medicine.
At US$4.6 trillion per year—more than 6% of world GDP—the social costs of pollution “are so massive they can drag down the economy of countries that are trying to get ahead,” he added. “We always hear ‘we can’t afford to clean up pollution’. I say we can’t afford not to clean it up.”
The report found that “toxic air, water, soils, and workplaces are responsible for the diseases that kill one in every six people around the world,” The Guardian reports. “The vast majority of the pollution deaths occur in poorer nations and in some, such as India, Chad, and Madagascar, pollution causes a quarter of all deaths. The international researchers said this burden is a hugely expensive drag on developing economies.”
The death toll from pollution exceeds mortality from HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined, and far outstrips deaths by war or murder, The Guardian notes. “But the scientists said the big improvements that have been made in developed nations in recent decades show that beating pollution is a winnable battle if there is the political will.”
The report lists Somalia, the Central African Republic, Chad, South Sudan, and Niger as the five countries with the highest pollution-related death rates, ranging from 245.5 to 316.3 per 100,000 population per year.
Apart from the massive number of deaths per year, Landrigan said the researchers were surprised by how quickly “modern pollution deaths” are increasing, while more “traditional” mortality from water contamination and wood cooking fires is declining due to solid international development work.
“Secondly, we hadn’t really got our minds around how much pollution is not counted in the present tally,” he told The Guardian. “The current figure of nine million is almost certainly an underestimate, probably by several million.”
With 5% of its annual death rate attributable to pollution, Canada had the seventh-lowest pollution-related health impact in the world, the commission found. But McGill University’s Niladri Basu, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Health Sciences, pointed to First Nations and Inuit communities as among the most contaminated in the world.
“This is really shameful for us,” he said. “We have a long history, a long legacy of manufacturing certain hazardous wastes and exporting them, and that’s something that really needs to stop.”
The study pointed to the Alberta tar sands/oil sands and Ontario’s Petrochemical Valley as pollution hotspots. Richard Fuller of Pure Earth, one of the 47 authors who contributed to the report, “said that people often don’t realize that pollution can damage economies, since those who are sick or dead cannot contribute to the economy,” CBC notes.
“There is this myth that finance ministers still live by, that you have to let industry pollute or else you won’t develop,” he said. “It just isn’t true.”
Lancet Editor-in-Chief Dr. Richard Horton and Executive Editor Dr. Pamela Das noted that “no country is unaffected by pollution. Human activities, including industrialization, urbanization, and globalization, are all drivers of pollution. We hope the commission findings will persuade leaders at the national, state, provincial, and city levels to make pollution a priority. Current and future generations deserve a pollution-free world.”
Landrigan said he’s most concerned about the unknown impact of hundreds of industrial chemicals and pesticides that are already in wide circulation world-wide. “I worry we have created a situation where people are exposed to chemicals that are eroding intelligence or impairing reproduction or weakening their immune system,” he said. “But we have not yet been smart enough to make the connection between the exposure and the outcome, because it is subtle.”